There’s a TV show called Dickinson, about the American poet Emily Dickinson. It’s modernized and witty and wild, and pretty surreal at times (which I love), clearly borrowing tricks from what Moulin Rouge did so well back in the day. Dickinson also has its problems, and it won’t be for everyone, but there was this one scene that gave me an experience I can’t stop thinking about. And my dilemma is this: part of the experience was my surprise, which you won’t get if you read this before watching it. But I’ll go ahead anyway, and let you decide for yourself, so: brief spoilers ahead, especially for season two, episode six.
A little context: Emily Dickinson was probably, very probably, queer. The show is certainly based on that theory, focusing on her romantic relationship with Sue, a childhood friend who marries Emily’s brother (both in real life and in the show). In this particular episode, Emily and Sue’s relationship has been strained for a while. Emily has also been connecting with a man, someone who wants to publish her poems, but whose attention also seems more personal.
They all go to the opera, and Emily tries to give the man one of her poems, “Split the Lark”, probably freshly written. I actually don’t remember if he reads it or not, or what his reaction is, just that they fall out because the guy is married and he thinks she’s overstepping. So he leaves her there, in a private box at the opera, and Emily is hurt and confused and all kinds of muddled. I remember that I wasn’t really paying attention while watching — until the show did one of its beautifully surreal twists, all of which seem to stem from Emily’s own inner world.
On stage, where the singer just stood, is Sue, Emily’s beloved, backed up by a full orchestra and shining under the stage lights. And she’s singing Emily’s poem.
The song only lasts one hundred and four seconds, yet I remember being so utterly carried away, so glued to my little ipad mini screen. It was such a tender moment, suddenly tearing both us, the audience, and Emily herself, back to the main story, back to the heart of the show, and to the source of so many of her poems.
Also, yes, music is basically my emotional Achilles’ heel. I should have seen it coming, with all the parallels to Moulin Rouge and also that they were at the opera, but no. I was all the better for it, though, firmly tugged out of every thought in my head and into the moment, into a swirl of regret and joy and surprise and longing and crystal clear knowledge about the importance of art.
I’ve listened to the song many, many times since then. I’ve sung it in the shower, while cooking, staring at the ceiling in my daybed. It’s a nice enough song. The point isn’t the song, or even the poem (though it does cut like a scalpel). The point is that feeling I had. And I’ve realized how rarely it happens that I’m overwhelmed by anything like that. How rarely anything moves me in such a visceral way these days.
Because our world isn’t really set up to create those hook-in-the-gut moments, is it? I mean, I absolutely think it’s possible to get this kind of experience from an Instagram post, but… it would require a state of mind that I rarely have while my attention is flung from cat videos to political atrocities to the newest sewing pattern. On social media I keep my guard ever so slightly up, braced for bad news, which isn’t the best way to take in art. And as for my own creations, they sometimes feel, to me at least, more utilitarian (“I need something to hang on my wall”), than an expression of my secret heart.
So in a way, our society mirrors (Apple TV’s) Emily Dickinson’s dilemma: can she create her art, her poems, if she gets famous, if she suddenly belongs to everyone? Or is she better off guarding her own world from prying eyes, focusing her gaze inwards, into herself? It goes for experiencing art as well as creating it.
It would be easy to say this is all the fault of the Internetz. But I am no analogue purist — in fact, I’ve met several of my dearest friends online. Also, cat videos are hilarious. But even as someone who finds meaning in life through art, through creation, I often forget to create room for slowness. These kinds of experiences require attention and curiosity. It’s music that needs a loud enough volume, poetry that needs to be read slowly, nature you have to touch. This is something online life often sorely lacks. It worries me sometimes, which kinds of art and media will survive. Like, what does this do to any art that you don’t “get” right away? That we can’t reward with a like, or banish with a flick of a finger? And what does this do to our own ability to feel? To create?
I think we need it. We need to feel an orchestra tune their instruments, the vibration shaking the dust from our bones. Or, through a camera lens, see the world simplified to a rectangle; manageable and focused through our desire. To let the pencil glide across the paper like fingers over skin, lovingly, breathing life into it. Like physical therapy for the senses, or the heart, we need something to get the blood flowing and wake us up.
At least, I do. I need that. Maybe you do, too.
Split the Lark – and You’ll find the Music
Bulb after Bulb, in Silver rolled
Scantily dealt to the Summer Morning
Saved for your Ear, when Lutes be old.
Loose the Flood – you shall find it patent
Gush after Gush, reserved for you
Scarlet Experiment! Skeptic Thomas!
Now, do you doubt that your Bird was true?
PS: if you’re curious about the poem itself I found this blog post really interesting.